Although his lecture was one of the few that I missed at the Symposia, Robert Benne has done me a favor by writing of his experience in the most recent issue of the Forum Letter (March '07). I had heard that his remarks were not all well received, and it made me curious as to what he really said (and disappointed that I chose that lecture to skip!). In short, he both praises and criticises the participants at the Symposia. The faculty and students he has high marks for (as well as for the Ft. Wayne seminary.) Several of the participants, which I imagine included many clergy, were less kind. So what prompted the negative comments?
Dr. Benne, it would seem, is not what I would label as a "confessional ELCA" person. These I have met and studied with, and now reading his remarks in Forum, I can see why some participants were upset (although admittedly their remarks could be seen as "boorish," as Benne describes them.) Benne, even though he sees huge problems with the ELCA far-left, still called for Missouri to have a "freer and more pacific spirit." He also noted "fundamentalist assumptions" in some of the "guiding documents" of our church, such as the Brief Statement of 1932 and The Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles of 1973.
In addressing one pastor's question on these remarks, Benne writes:
"One pastor asked me what I meant by fundamentalist themes in the founding documents. I told the audience that commitment to a literal six-day creation was a Missouri Synod accretion on the Lutheran tradition, and served as a false gate to get into the Lutheran confessional tradition. And I, for one, found it was too much to reject all forms of evolution. I added that such unwarranted hurdles would cost them many young people and theologians. I then said: 'I doubt if everyone in this room believes in the six-day creation!' Whereupon at last half the room jumped from their chairs and shouted: "I do, I do." But I publicly observed that half didn't stand up."
"Then someone asked me about Eucharistic sharing and I allowed that I thought I was confessional enough to share the Eucharist with the gathered group. Whereupon a small number shouted: 'No! You're not confessional enough!' 'We don't want to share with you!' It was enough to bring scores of apologies to me from the many who may have been somewhat sympathetic to what I said."
Sympathetic to what he said? Maybe. Then maybe it was just common courtesy and embarrassment over the "boorish" response from the others.
Dr. Benne lives in a middle zone between the left of ELCA and the right of Missouri, not quite having both feet in either area. Admittedly he deplores the liberal political-correctness of his own church body, but he also wants to be considered 'confessional' while playing fast and loose with the foundational security of our whole confession: the Word of God. Yes, that's what is at stake, as far as I would observe. The six-day creation is embraced simply because that is a faithful and honest reading of the Genesis account on its own terms. Furthermore , our fellowship at the Eucharist is not about Dr. Benne being "confessional enough" (that is, identifying himself with confessional thought and concerns), but about his identification with a church body that openly denies the full historicity and infallibility of that Word. We assume that by virtue of his membership he agrees with their doctrine. His remarks betray that he agrees with them a lot more than he may know.
I am pleased by the fine complements he pays to my alma mater and the high regard with which he holds the seminary. And I understand his view of my synod as "sectarian," even though I disagree. If we were truly sectarian I can't imagine that we would ask speakers like Benne to address a symposia set aside to discuss the confessions of the church. Sectarians have no interest in speaking and entering into dialogue with others outside their group. That is not Missouri, although he may see us that way, or at least a few of us.
Sectarian or not, embracing a six-day creation is about our loyalty and faithfulness to God's Word. Dr. Benne is caught in the classic bind between the ministerial and the magisterial use of reason. Through the scientific theory of evolution he has chosen to elevate reason above the scriptures and allow them to speak with more authority. That is niether safe nor wise. For where does one stop? You can't have it both ways. You can't say "I embrace God's Word of truth!" and then say that it is subject to the drifting whims of human thinking. Do we declare some to be "symbolic" because science will not allow us to take it literally? Revealed knowledge is always more authoritative than what we are able to glean from natural knowledge.
Maybe Benne thinks that this means we will be less of a synod for such views. So be it. I still think that many confessionally minded people around the world are praying we don't let go of what we have.